By Guest Blogger Donna Walls, RN, BSN, IBCLC, ANLC
Over a decade ago, the Department of Labor released the Fair Labor Standards Act – Break Time for Nursing Mothers Provision. It requires employers to provide nursing mothers reasonable break time to express breast milk and a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from any intrusion from co-workers and the public.
The law does not quantify the duration allowed for expressing milk, but suggests the amount of time needed to express milk for an infant under one year of age. Time used to express milk is not required to be compensated. Remote work situations are included in this law. (dol.gov, 2010)
Then in July 2019, Congress passed the Fairness for Breastfeeding Mothers Act of 2019. This law requires public buildings to “provide a shielded, hygienic space other than a bathroom, that contains a chair, working surface and an electrical outlet for use by members of the public to express milk.”
Lactating people in the workplace are also protected under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.
While work situations have changed drastically for many amidst the pandemic, these laws still apply during COVID-19.
Healthy Children Project, Inc., in partnership with the University of California Hastings College of the Law and the Workplace Support Constellation of the United States Breastfeeding Committee, have created a Your COVID-19 Workplace Rights: Breastfeeding and Lactation handout which details employee rights during the pandemic and links to helpful resources.
Lactation laws vary by state, but all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have laws that specifically allow women to breastfeed in any public or private location. Most states exempt breastfeeding from public indecency laws and many have specific workplace protections for breastfeeding employees.
In some situations, lactating people may be able to negotiate accommodations like requesting a sabbatical, using accrued paid time off, parental or family medical leave options or other time away programs. There may also be options available for working from home, reducing hours or requesting a change of job temporarily or permanently. There may also be benefits such as the “Pandemic Unemployment Assistance” or another state benefit available. Apply through the agency that provides unemployment insurance at the Career One Stop website.
In order to protect against the spread of COVID-19, employers may need to do more to ensure safe expression of milk. For instance, more time may be needed for pump cleaning and disinfecting surrounding surfaces. If milk expression occurs in an area shared by other employees, frequently touched surfaces like tabletops or door handles should be cleaned with a solution of 70% isopropyl alcohol, 0.05% dilution of hydrogen peroxide, bleach containing 5.25%–8.25% sodium hypochlorite, quaternary ammonium or Lysol after each use. (WHO, 2020)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends three different methods for cleaning and disinfecting a breast pump kit:
- thoroughly washing with warm water and soap including scrubbing with a stiff bristle bottle brush
- using a dishwasher set on the sanitizing cycle
- boiling pump parts for at least five to10 minutes and removing with clean tongs (CDC.gov, 2019)
No matter the method, begin by thoroughly removing all traces of milk and rinsing. Do not use sinks used for other cleaning purposes and set aside a basin to be used only for pump cleaning. Clean well after each use. Scrub and clean pump equipment well with hot soapy water after each use. Dry all equipment thoroughly on a clean cloth, dish towel or paper towel.
Lactating individuals may prefer to hand express rather than using a manual or electric breast pump. Employers might consider having instructions available on how to hand express. Hand expression requires no equipment, therefore saving time and reducing the risk of virus transmission through potentially contaminated equipment. Employees must have access to hand washing stations, but may not need to have availability to electrical outlets. (Stanford, 2006)
Special considerations may need to be assessed in healthcare facilities. Prior to any milk expression, gowns, gloves, caps or masks should be removed to limit the spread of COVID-19. Breastfeeding employees might also consider wearing a clean facial covering or mask during milk expression and bringing their own cooling/storage system rather than using refrigerators provided by the employer. (CDC, 2019)
Milk storage at work requires no further preparations other than routine cleaning of milk storage containers. If using single-use storage bags, there is no need to pre-clean the bag. If using glass or plastic bottles or other containers, wash with hot soapy water and scrub with a bottle brush or use the sanitizing dishwasher cycle. It is not advisable to clean milk storage containers with antibacterial soaps or chemical disinfectants as they may leave a residue of chemicals not meant for ingestion by infants or children. (HMBANA, 2020)
It is well established that breastfeeding is the healthiest choice for feeding infants and children. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there were concerns regarding the safety of keeping mothers and babies together and the transmissibility of the virus through breastmilk. Research, policies and protocols have shown the safety of continuing breastfeeding and breastmilk feeding. Practices that ensure safe lactation in the workplace should continue to be implemented and breastfeeding employees should be supported in their infant feeding goals.
For further information, contact the Center for WorkLife Law’s free COVID-19 legal helpline at 415-851-3308 or COVID19Helpline@worklifelaw.org.
“ABM STATEMENT ON CORONAVIRUS 2019 (COVID-19).” Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, 10 Mar. 2020, www.bfmed.org/abm-statement-coronavirus.
“Care for Breastfeeding Women.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3 Dec. 2020, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/care-for-breastfeeding-women.html.
“CGBI COVID-19 Resources.” UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, 24 Apr. 2020, sph.unc.edu/cgbi/cgbi-covid-19-resources.
“Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 Dec. 2020, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/disinfecting-building-facility.html.
“Clinical Management of COVID-19.” World Health Organization, 27 May 2020, www.who.int/publications/i/item/clinical-management-of-covid-19.
“FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS: Breastfeeding and COVID-19 For Health Care Workers.” World Health Organization (WHO), 12 May 2020, www.who.int/docs/default-source/reproductive-health/maternal-health/faqs-breastfeeding-and-covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=d839e6c0_5.
Milk Handling for COVID-19 Positive or Suspected Mothers in the Hospital Setting. Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA), 14 Apr. 2020, www.hmbana.org/file_download/inline/a593dd72-be78-471e-ae5e-6490309108fd.
Morton , Jane. “Hand Expressing Milk.” Hand Expression of Breastmilk, Stanford Medicine , 2006, med.stanford.edu/newborns/professional-education/breastfeeding/hand-expressing-milk.html.
Ong SWX, Tan YK, Chia PY, Lee TH, Ng OT, Wong MSY, et al. Air, Surface Environmental, and Personal Protective Equipment Contamination by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) From a Symptomatic Patient. JAMA. 2020. Epub 2020/03/05. 7.
“Workplace Lactation Laws – Pregnant@Work.” Pregnant@Work, 2020, www.pregnantatwork.org/workplace-lactation-laws/.
“Your COVID-19 Workplace Rights: Breastfeeding and Lactation.” Worklife Law , University of California Hastings College of the Law , 2021, www.pregnantatwork.org/wp-content/uploads/Rights-of-Breastfeeding-Workers-in-the-Context-of-COVID-19.pdf.